First, a word about pie crusts. Nearly everyone I know relies upon the store-bought, pre-made versions, and these are, in my opinion, a waste of money. And they taste horrible. At least they did when they first came on the market, back when I was a teenager - those Pillsbury ones you can get next to the canned biscuits and cookie dough. My mother had always made her own pie crust and the first time she used one of those, I could immediately tell the difference. It tasted like chemicals. They may have improved since then, but I have precious little in my life to be sanctimonious about, so there will be no pre-made, factory-processed pie crusts in this house.
The reason, it seems, that people don't make their own is that it tends to turn out like cardboard. But with a little understanding of how the ingredients work, you can avoid this quite easily. There are two main mistakes that people make that result in cardboard pie crust: overworking the dough, and using ingredients that are too warm.
Pie crust is essentially flour, butter, salt, and water. Some people add a bit of sugar, but I don't. Flour, as we know, contains gluten, which is a type of protein. When flour is mixed with a liquid to form a dough, and that dough is stirred or kneaded, those proteins form long chains, which are what gives the dough structure and allows it to hold together. You want to develop these chains when you make bread, so you get a nice chewy crust and the loaf doesn't fall in the oven. But with pie crust, not so much. Pie crust needs to be more tender than strong, so you have to be cautious about how you mix it.
Unlike with cookies, cakes, and other baked goods that involve butter, you do not want to soften the butter or bring it to room temperature before adding it to the flour. In fact, you want it as cold as you can get it and still be able to cut through it. This is because you want to end up with discrete bits of butter distributed throughout the dough. These bits will expand when they bake, making the crust flaky. To help keep the butter from melting, the water you use should be ice cold as well. In fact, if it's a hot day, I'll chill all the ingredients and the workbowl before I start.
Killer Pie Crust (makes enough for a double crust pie or two single crust pies. Recipe can be exactly halved to make one single crust):
2 and 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour. Make sure it is all-purpose and not bread flour. Or pastry flour is good too. Just not bread flour.
2 sticks of unsalted butter...
...cut into pat-sized pieces:
1/2 to 1 teaspoon of salt, depending on how salty you like it. I tend to eyeball it:
And ICE WATER!
You won't use nearly this much water, but I like to use an easy-pour container and lots of ice to get it nice and chilly.
Now, for the way I do this, you will need a food processor. This makes the whole process easier and faster, but it can be done manually and I'll include instructions in parentheses for that.
1. Place your flour, salt, and butter in the work bowl of the food processor:
2. Secure the lid and PULSE (do not just let it run - use the pulse and do very quick, short pulses) until the butter has broken up into bits the size of small peas. A few may be larger, a few smaller, but for the most part, you want to still be able to see the bits of butter. This was about 13 pulses, but your processor may take more or less, so stop and check every few pulses:
(To do this by hand, use a pastry cutter or two knives to chop up the butter until you have the right size pieces. If it takes too long, or you need to stop for a fortifying cocktail, put the bowl in the fridge or freezer while you rejuvenate.)
3. Using the feed tube of the processor, pour in about a tablespoon of ice water. Pulse once or twice.
Now comes the tricky part. The amount of water you use will vary, depending on various factors, so it can end up being anywhere from a few tablespoons to a half cup or more. You have to test it. Here's how:
4. After adding the water and pulsing, open the lid and grab a small handful of the mixture and squeeze it in your hand. Does it come together into a little doughy ball, or does it crumble? If it crumbles, you need to replace the lid, add some more water, pulse a couple more times, and re-test it. As soon as you can get it to hold together in your hand, STOP! You are done!
(By hand, get a nice big fork and put your ice water into a clean spray bottle. Spray the ice water over the flour/butter mixture several times and then quickly and lightly mix, like you were fluffing a bowl of rice. Don't stir like you're trying to mix cake batter. Fluff. Fold. Imagine sprightly fairies dancing upon the dew-sparkled daisies or something. Now do the squeeze test, and repeat until you get the dough to hold together as above. At this point, the directions are the same, so no more parenthetical hand-holding for you!)
5. To keep from overworking the dough at this point, take two longish pieces of plastic wrap and lay them across each other perpendicularly, like so:
Dump the contents of the work bowl onto the middle of the wrap. Don't freak because it still looks crumbly. If you start to freak, go see your buddy who's doing it by hand. She made cocktails.
Using the sides of the pastic wrap, bring the dough together into a rough disc shape and press together to form your dough. You can use your bare hands, but using the wrap kind of like a barrier just keeps you cleaner. You are not kneading it, just pressing the moist bits together. Seriously. Don't go all apeshit now, when you're almost done:
6. Once it's fairly even, cover it all with the wrap and refrigerate for at least 1/2 an hour before rolling. If you refrigerate it longer, you may have to let it warm up jut a bit before you can roll it out. But keep an eye on it and start rolling as soon as you can, so that it doesn't warm up too much. Also, watch out for dough bandits:
My mom always rolled hers out between two pieces of waxed paper, but that never worked well for me. I use a big pastry board and a flour shaker that gives me a good, but light, coating of flour, and as long as I work pretty fast, I never have trouble with sticking, but that may be from 20-plus years of practice.
It may take a few tries to get right, because you kind of have to learn to recognize the look and feel you are going for. But if you keep in mind that you are trying to avoid overworking it, and you keep your butter and water nice and cold, you'll be well on your way.
If you make it through the process successfully and sober enough to take a picture, send me a photo of what you make and I'll post it on Facebook. We'll make a Pie Crust Hall of Fame. It'll be just like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but with less Bono.